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Aufschrei der Jugend / Generation Fridays for Future

Director: Kathrin Pitterling (Germany). Year of Release: 2020

You wait for a film about the climate movement, then a load of them turn up at roughly the same time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as this is possibly the most important and largest movement of our time. Just 2 days before the recent elections, 660,000 people demonstrated in Germany for climate justice.

While some other films choose to concentrate on the various Climate Summits – where young people have been allowed to make speeches which are subsequently ignored – Aufschrei der Jugend is primarily a film about a movement. In this case, Fridays for Future Germany, and especially its Berlin branch which has built an active base for nearly 3 years now.

We are introduced to a number of the central activists and watch them develop as the demonstrations progress. This is a young movement and proudly so. In one scene an older man is ejected from a meeting in the Natural History Museum. Nothing personal, but they are wary of being taken over by activists bringing the experience and failures of earlier movements.

Fridays for Future also understands itself as a grassroots democratic movement with no leaders. This is sometimes easier said than done. Early on, the press decide that Luisa Neubauer (who appears a lot in this film, speaking very articulately) is the leader of the movement and don’t seem to understand when she refuses interviews, telling them to speak to local activists. As she achieves notoriety, Luisa also receives hate mail and death threats,

Another activist, Clara, has a similar experience. After she makes a speech at the Volkswagen shareholders meeting (it is a longstanding tactic of German movements to buy a couple of shares and get people to speak from the floor), the press decide that she is the new face of FfF. This results in Clara also receiving online threats.

None of this stops Fridays for Future from crashing the public debate. The Friday school strikes continue and the demonstrations get increasingly large. From seeing a small group of people at Invalidenplatz, we see demo moderators announcing that “we were expecting 5,000 but there are 25,000 here”, and later that “this time the attendance is in 6 figures”.

And yet despite these successes, nothing really changes. The German government passes the Klimapaket (climate package), which doesn’t even meet the moderate demands of the Paris Agreement. FFF activists meet with Olaf Scholz, then the finance minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, now almost certainly the next ruler of Germany. He promises very little.

The activists get frustrated. One leaves to go on a world tour, another quits the movement to concentrate on his studies. Others discuss whether they should start setting fire to cars. They decide against, saying that this would lose them support, but don’t really have any other suggestions for how they can maintain the movement. Participation at the demos starts to dwindle and they ask whether they can really sustain a weekly school strike.

It is good that director Kathrin Pitterling is on hand to record that these discussions were already taking place before Corona hit. Corona certainly makes a poor situation worse – and not just because it was so much harder to organise mass demonstrations. As one activist explains, for a year maybe they were able to build a movement as many people thought that the climate was the biggest current threat to humanity. Suddenly saving the planet was demoted to second place.

The film ends on a defiant note with another large demonstration, but it’s not clear whether and how this will continue. I would have preferred a little more discussion about tactics. How do you sustain a movement when the government just keeps ignoring you? What are the implications for grassroots democracy when you’re having 9 hour weekly meetings and are spending your time chasing up the minutes of yesterday’s meeting so you can set the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting?

I’d also like to have seen a little more of things being done. Yes, we do see the demos, but we hear about much more – such as postering and leafletting in local areas which involve many more people than the few “leaders” on whom the film has chosen to concentrate. I get why this happens, but it doesn’t help FfF’s reputation as a middle class slightly élitist organisation.

Whatever. Aufschrei der Jugend is fully on the side of the movement, as it should be. It is also honest enough in its support to also show the real problems with which the movement is confronted. It doesn’t offer solutions to these problems, but this is mainly because the movement itself is still looking for answers. In this way, this film adds a useful contribution to the discussion, but we still need more – particularly something that takes on the central question: how can we win?

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